Edwyn Collins seems to have hung round the peripheries of pop success for nigh on twenty years now. Despite writing a bona fide Eighties classic in Orange Juice‘s Rip It Up and being the man behind the massive hit that was A Girl Like You back in 1996, he’s always had the image of one of pop’s nearly men. While his new album, Doctor Syntax, is unlikely to bring him much belated success, it is another fine example of Collins’ delightfully quirky songs.
Collins’ fifth solo album was recorded over a period of three years and it’s obvious by the lush production just how much care has been lavished on it. The opening track I Never Felt Like This is a laid back, soulful number which is Collins’ attempt to update the Chi-Lites . True to form, the obligatory harmony backing vocals do indeed recall the legendary Chicago smoothies. Similarly, Should’ve Done That gives more than a nod to Prince , even in the rather idiosyncratic moments where Collins murmurs “One little piggie had roast beef…”
Fans who may be worried that Edwyn is rivalling Jay Kay‘s position as chief white soul boy and has mis-laid his sense of humour, shouldn’t be too concerned. Mine Is At contains possibly the finest couplet to grace an album this year, namely “See my lifestyle ain’t changed much/I just take more risks/that’s remarkably easy/when you’re remarkably pissed”.
The highlight of the album is undoubtedly The Beatles which Collins describes as “the story of the Beatles compressed into four minutes”. Musically, it’s a knowing pastiche of Beatleseque sounds, but it’s lyrically that the song really stands out. Basically it’s a succession of lines of Collins intoning “Let’s hear it for the fab Beatle…Let’s hear it for the quiet Beatle” before mentioning Hamburg, Brian Epstein, Allan Klein, and containing the very clever line “But the catcher in the rye, was the reaper in disguise”. Finishing off with “So sad about the dead Beatle”, you’re not sure whether Edwyn was for or against the Fab Four by the end of the song, but it’s certainly the track that sticks in the memory.
At first listen this record may seem a bit too self-consciously quirky and Collins lugubrious voice, while undoubtedly impressive, may grate after a while. Also, some of the tracks here, such as Back To The Backroom seem to amble along with no clear purpose. Just when your attention starts to wander though, along comes a gorgeous track like Splitting Up, or the ‘talking blues’ of 20 Years Too Late to grab it back again.
In general this is a welcome return by one of pop music’s true originals. The glory days are probably behind him these days, but for those in need of an entertaining hour’s listen, this is just what the doctor ordered.